Noel Gallagher is in a reflective mood as he looks back at his life before and during the Oasis years and at the prospects for his new band High Flying Birds.
Noel Gallagher: 'All I ever wanted was a bigger telly'
He thinks he might have wasted his life. Not all of it, you understand. Certainly not two decades during which his old band Oasis sold 70 million albums, swigged from champagne flutes at the British prime minister’s Downing Street residence and played Wembley Stadium. No, the bit before that. From the ages of 17 to 27 to be exact. A complete lost decade. Noel Gallagher has been thinking about it a lot recently.
“When I was 17 I was a typical north-west scally, going to football matches, smoking dope and collecting my dole. I became a self-taught expert on Prisoner Cell Block H and WWF wrestling and the local guide for magic mushrooms. People say to me ‘Oh, but you must have been writing songs, getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder’. I didn’t even notice the ladder was there. The people I hung out with – if you had any ambitions you were seen as a bit of sissy so I didn’t even pick up a guitar.”
He’s been thinking about this time again because, since the acrimonious break-up of Oasis in 2009, he has in effect been unemployed again. There has been a long lay-off during which time he has had a third child, re-married, moved house and thankfully written some new songs. Now at last he has a new job too: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds are about to release their first album.
“I was better at being unemployed this time round,” he says. “I got more done. Didn’t stay up too late. No mushrooms.”
We are drinking coffee on a sunny café terrace in east London. An office block overlooks us and some female workers spot him and start waving and cheering. He waves back. When they go on a bit too long, he knots his eyebrows quizzically and you can see why some people used to call him “Parker” after the monobrowed Thunderbirds character.
Being instantly recognised, I say, after a long absence and the demise of the band that made him famous, must be reassuring.
“I don’t know about reassuring. I’m trying something new and you never know how people will react. I think there’s goodwill. But that soon disappears if you haven’t got the songs.”
His brother Liam’s rival band, Beady Eye, have had a six-month head-start and enjoyed a raft of “not as terrible as we all feared” reviews. But Noel Gallagher believes that he has the songs to put this rivalry to bed. Wisely, he has taken the precaution of recording them with a band with none of the personnel issues of the old one. Backed by unknown side-men and, as if to emphasise his post-Oasis creative liberation, the High Flying Birds have recorded two albums. The imminent High Flying Birds album and a psychedelic sister album recorded with the electronic dance rock pioneers The Amorphous Androgynous, which will be released in 2012.
“I’m easing everyone in gently,” Gallagher laughs. “You get the recognisable me first time round. And then next year you get the mind-blowing version.”
What drives the most successful British rock stars of the past 20 years? Well, classic post-divorce angst for a start. In the fall-out from the split with his brother it has become a point of principle to show just who the real talent was. Noel Gallagher is prepared to admit that Liam was the handsome, charismatic front man but he is at pains to prove that it was always he who wrote the Oasis classics. And if the melodies aren’t enough, then new song titles such as If I Had a Gun and The Death of You & Me surely tell their own story.
Gallagher realises that the High Flying Birds put him deeply out of his comfort zone for the first time in 20 years. He will once more be proving himself in venues where, as he says, he can see the “whites of people’s eyes”. He is hedging his bets a little: he will play small venues to begin with plus a smattering of Oasis songs. But he is adamant that the days of working with his brother are over.
“Of course it’s sad that those songs will never be played in the stadiums where they belong. No one regrets that more than me. But… you have to look forward. There are new challenges. No one can say that we didn’t make the most of it.”
He looks different. Gallagher has rarely been one for major overhauls in style, whether it be clothes or music. The Oasis 20-year supremacy was conducted almost entirely in kagoules. But today Gallagher is dressed like a Mod on his summer holidays. Smart yellow polo shirt, jeans, deck shoes. And beyond this, he has the special sheen of the multi-millionaire. Expertly slicked hair. Good teeth. A fat ruby ring even Elizabeth Taylor might have thought a little brash.
There can be no doubt though that there has been considerable soul searching in the two years since his old band broke up. Gallagher joined and re-named Liam’s band Rain when he was 23. Their first album was released when he was 27. He was 30 by the time Britpop was in full cry. By today’s standards he was a late developer. And this is why, when he thinks about the decade of unemployment in his late teens, he is determined not to waste his life this time round.
“These X Factor generation kids are writing songs at 13 and they expect to be signed at 16. They are so business-minded it’s untrue. At 17 I was just embarking on 10 years of dole culture and if I’d known what the possibilities were I would have fast-forwarded through it. Ten years is a long time sitting on your arse.”
This time round he has been far more businesslike, and not just in terms of music. He got married to his long-term girlfriend Sara MacDonald after 11 years together. They moved from the flat in London’s Marylebone to a proper family house in Maida Vale. In 2010 they had another baby, Sonny.
“We moved to get a garden. I’ve never had a place with a garden in London. That’s the truth.” He says. “You need a garden for the kids.”
There have been surprises to the stay-at-home life. The day they moved to Maida Vale there was a ring on the door bell. It was their new neighbour with a cake.
“Really sweet of them,” says Gallagher tentatively. “It made me think. I’d never bake a f***ing cake for a new neighbour. I’m a bit cold, not a very community-minded person. Because I was never around that much I’d barely raise an eyebrow if there was a new neighbour. As long as they weren’t noisy or chucking beer cans over the wall. I suppose I just want to be left alone. I’m not that warm a person which I should probably try and change a bit.”
MacDonald seems to be having some success here. Take Gallagher’s marriage proposal for example. The way he describes it, it sounds like a scene from a 1970s sitcom: one evening he was on the sofa watching the BBC documentary series Coast. He thinks it might have been an item about a silted-up estuary on the Humber.
MacDonald came up to him and said: “Just so you know, I’m not getting married when I’m past 40.”
Glancing up from the TV, Gallagher says his response was: “How old are you now?”
MacDonald was 39 and a few months. He proposed. He even rang her parents for permission, but here, too, he might have got the chivalrous tone slightly wrong.
“Her dad said: ‘I can’t tell. Are you asking me or telling me?’?”
Gallagher is hampered by an old-school alpha-male code when describing his more warm, tender feelings. Explaining to me how wonderful his relationship with MacDonald has been, he says:
“I don’t want to sound like a complete c*** but the reason I never asked before is because our 11 years together has been brilliant. We have had such a good time.”
He isn’t great at expressing his feelings. But at the same time, no pop star is more forthright than Noel Gallagher. It was this attitude that fuelled Oasis. And it was this same alpha masculinity that led to an intriguing phone call from the X Factor boss Simon Cowell earlier this year.
Gallagher was at home playing pirates in the kitchen with his son Donovan when Cowell called. He asked him to replace him as a judge on The X Factor while he went to concentrate on the American version of the show. Cowell saw something of himself in Gallagher: a no nonsense alpha male. Initially Gallagher was interested. He has met Cowell and admires him for being honest and straight-talking.
But Cowell explained that being a judge meant having contestants back to your house during the show’s boot-camp stage. Gallagher thought about his new garden.
“Can you f***ing imagine?” he says. “I’m in me new f***ing garden and there’s a fat waitress from Bradford standing in my daffodils singing ‘Flying Without Wings’. I’d be like: ‘Sh*t song. Fat Arse. F*** off.’?”
Cowell learnt a valuable lesson: there is a special designation beyond alpha male inhabited only by the Gallagher brothers. The X Factor offer was withdrawn. Still, there was a personal price to be paid. Anaïs, Gallagher’s daughter (by his first marriage to Meg Mathews), went mental.
“I’m not kidding. She literally could not cope or accept the fact that I did not want to be on X Factor. Kids that age do not give a monkeys about Oasis or what their dad does. They just know that Simon Cowell is the nearest thing we have to a God on this earth and I’ve just turned down a chance to work with him. The way she went on about it, you’d think I’d run him over. Never seen anger like it, I swear.”
It became accepted Oasis folklore that it was Liam who was the loose cannon, the wild one. Noel always seemed calmer, cleverer, the long-suffering songwriter who held it all together. Since their break-up Liam (backed up by his Beady Eye bandmates) has complained it was always his brother who was the grumpy old man, the little Hitler, prone to tantrums.
Is that true? Is Noel hard to live with?
“I’m not getting into all that,” he says testily. “But look at any successful band. There is a Jagger and a Keith Richards. Jagger makes it happen, Richards falls out of a f***ing tree.”
Noel Gallagher certainly seems untroubled now. In fact, after years on the road, he says that he absolutely loves home-life. He has recently mastered the internet after getting an iPad and a computer. He is also master of a new kitchen. He doesn’t want to sound soft so he won’t name a signature dish, but says he likes blueberries. The kitchen also has other uses. When he plays pirates with 4-year-old Donovan he can get lost in the game for hours as the battle rages round the breakfast bar.
“I think I am a typical dad in that during the first week of the holidays I am in heaven and I love the kids and I think I am a great dad. Week two and you start to chafe at the edges a bit and think ‘I’m nothing more than a servant’ and it gets to be a bit of an arse ache.”
His daily routine does bear a striking resemblance to the days on the dole in his teens. He watches a lot of daytime TV: Sky news, football, Coast, cookery programmes. The difference is, he doesn’t have to worry about money or sign on. And of course there will be a guitar around and a song might come. And a mate might call. And not the type to think he is a sissy for playing an instrument. It could be Russell Brand or Paul Weller or the two boisterous lads from Kasabian.
“My telly is bigger than back then,” he laughs. “That’s the main difference. All I ever wanted was a bigger telly.”
The Gallagher file
Born Noel Thomas David Gallagher May 29, 1967 in Longsight, Manchester, England.
Learnt to play guitar At the age of 13 while on six months’ probation for robbing a corner shop.
Family Wife Sara MacDonald; sons Donovan Rory MacDonald Gallagher, 4, and Sonny Patrick MacDonald Gallagher, 1; daughter Anaïs Gallagher, 11, with ex-wife Meg Mathews.
First job Working for his father’s building company.
Worst job Working on a construction site.
Hero Neil Young.
Last book read Agent ZigZag by Ben Macintyre. It’s a great story about a south-London thief who gets caught by the Nazis and is forced to use his skills with explosives to blow up a factory in England. Except he turns double agent and doesn’t. It’s brilliant.
Biggest regret Being on the dole so long.
Favourite quote It’s from Neil Young. Someone asked him how come he’s been in so many different bands. He said: “No one band is big enough for what I’ve got”.
Can’t live without Blueberries. Seriously, it’s my favourite fruit.
Secret pleasure Mungo Jerry. A great band.
Can’t stand The list is a long one. I’d have to say London traffic.
Craziest thing ever done The list is even longer. Making Be Here Now in a severely dishevelled state is up there.
Person to be stranded with on a desert isle The missus. It would be a strange man who chose someone else just a few weeks after marrying her, eh?
The never-without-something-to-say Noel
“See, I don’t know what I am. If I was an atheist I’d just write songs about not believing in God – but I don’t know what I am”
– www.clashmusic.com, October 2, 2008
“I’m not saying I’m the greatest songwriter in the world. Usually, I’m saying, ‘These are the greatest songwriters in the world. And I’m gonna put them all in this song.’”
– Guitar World, May 1996
“People think I’m controversial for the answers I give to silly questions in interviews, but... I’m not thinking about insulting... people; I say what I genuinely feel is in my heart”
– Etalk Daily, 2005
“I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance. Glastonbury. It’s wrong”
– BBC News, April 12, 2008
“I believe that I, as a person, can only change things once every five years and that’s by voting, and my point is that even casting that vote means that the same guy gets in, the only difference is one has a red tie and the other has a blue one. That’s all it means, so I think that I should start the Gallagher Party”
– BBC2 NewsNight, February 14, 2007
“I can’t help but offend people. I’ve got a certain turn of phrase and way with words, that when written down, they look bad”
– www.rollingstone.com, August 11, 2011
“Jack White, right, has just done a song for Coca-Cola. End of. He ceases to be in the club. And he looks like Zorro on doughnuts”
–www.contactmusic.com, December 8, 2005
“Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriters of all time, has only produced manure for the past 25 years.”
– thescotsman.scotsman.com,– September 20, 2011
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